Writer: Angela Carter
Director: Emma Rice
Reviewer: Clare Howdon
Emma Rice appears to have something of a love affair with Angela Carter. After directing Nights at the Circus in 2006, Rice’s adaptation of Carter’s seminal novel Wise Children (which is also coincidentally the name of her new theatre company) is currently doing the rounds in the UK, following a successful run at the Old Vic.
Wise Children centres on Dora and Nora Chance, the offspring of a theatrical dynasty and the estranged children of Melchior Hazard, the greatest actor of his generation. There is more than a smattering of Shakespearean influences throughout Carter’s writing, in both the comic (mistaken identities, cross-dressing, partner swapping and scandalous illegitimacy) and tragic (various nods to King Lear and his daughters). There is a poignancy that runs through Carter’s last novel, written after her diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, which Rice’s production brings to life sensitively and creatively.
In typical Rice fashion, the experience begins as soon as one enters the theatre. Before the show has started, cast members are on-stage limbering up, setting the stall from the outset that Carter’s novel is about being behind the scenes as well as the glamour of ‘treading the boards’. Vicki Mortimer’s set design is instantly striking; the words ‘Wise Children’ are lit up in carnival letters alongside a vintage caravan, which turns to reveal the protagonists home. Rice’s adaptation certainly does not shy away from the novel’s seedier and subversive elements and the first half of the production is chock-full of bonking and incest, albeit delivered in Rice’s trademark silly and charming way.
The twins, in their older years, are played superbly by Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook who wonderfully bring to life the ageing pair, seamlessly blending moments of camp comedy, warmth and pathos. Omari Douglas and Melissa James take up the mantle later in the production as Dora and Nora during the showgirl era with some sensational dance sequences. Ankur Bahl is hilarious as the vain young Melchior whilst Sam Archer literally explodes onto the stage as tartan-trouser clad young Peregrine, the twins’ doting uncle.
However, it is the older cast members who really steal the limelight. Paul Hunter is superb as both Melchior the elder and end-of-the-pier entertainer Gorgeous George whilst Katy Owen gives a side-splitting turn as foul-mouthed naturist Grandma Chance, with a delicious concoction of physical comedy and bawdy innuendo. The entire cast play their parts perfectly in keeping with the part-Vaudeville, part-Burlesque atmosphere that Rice and Mortimer have created on stage. This doesn’t mean there aren’t emotionally wrenching moments (the grandmother’s death and Dora’s miscarriage are delivered with poignant symbolism) but these parts are never lingered on for too long, ensuring that the production avoids feeling overly sentimental or clichéd.
There are pacing issues in the final few scenes, not helped in this particular showing by some technical issues in the theatre and it doesn’t quite pack the punch of some of Rice’s earlier work like Tristen and Yseult. However, Wise Children is still a joy to watch. This surreal production triumphantly and lewdly embodies the joys and power of theatre whilst also nodding regretfully at the concept of vanishing youth.
Runs until 23 March 2019 | Image: Steve Tanner